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The manifest's destiny

A ship's log traces an American family's origin: A young woman's passage in steerage from Russia to New York's alien streets in 1920.

Hinda "Helen" Rubache Friedman , the author's mother-in-law, in a photo from about 1920, when she immigrated from Minsk. The passenger log of the ship on which she traveled has become a cherished family Hanukkah gift.
Hinda "Helen" Rubache Friedman , the author's mother-in-law, in a photo from about 1920, when she immigrated from Minsk. The passenger log of the ship on which she traveled has become a cherished family Hanukkah gift.Read more

We've managed to acquire a remarkable family Hanukkah gift: a ship's manifest, an official passenger log that tracks my late mother-in-law's voyage to America in 1920.

It's a taproot to family history, part of our clan's collective "Coming to America" story. Had she not made that voyage, nothing would be the same.

Hinda Rubache came to these shores and through Ellis Island as a young woman of 22. She sailed from the city of Minsk in Russia, though her immigration papers say Poland because of the ever-changing borders.

That ship's manifest, an impersonal document if ever there was one, lists her name, her height, her hair and eye color, and the fact that she could write - in Hebrew, not English.

It does not mention the travails and hopes and dreams that brought immigrants to "The Golden Land." It does not note how it must have felt to leave family behind in the search for a better life, for the freedom to be Jewish without fear, for that heart-stopping, 11-letter word, opportunity.

Hinda, Americanized to Helen, soon married Jacob Friedman, another immigrant. Together, they tried to make their way in the teeming streets of New York. She was a seamstress, he an ornamental ironworker.

Their great-grandchildren - my own children - might come from another universe, so different are their lives. Again, a common story in the dance of the generations.

My husband, a proud first-generation American, has told our daughters of his parents' move to a small New Jersey farm, of the long, hard hours working the land. It's important for our thoroughly modern children to understand whence they came.

But because it's so far removed from their lives, our daughters Jill, Amy, and Nancy (and now their children), really can't fathom that immigrant odyssey. At the age when their grandmother traveled in steerage on the steamship Finland, leaving behind all she had ever known, our daughters were safely close to home, with the scaffolding of support from loving parents.

So the ship's manifest, which will be the centerpiece on our Hanukkah holiday table this year, is more than an ordinary document to us. It is our tenuous connection to how our family came to be where we are. In a sense, it is our passport to America.

My husband has studied the list of names on that sterile-looking document and has focused on the passenger listed on line 21 - his mother.

As many stories as he knows about her life before America - as much as he absorbed during his mother's long life - there are still gaps. There always will be.

How did Helen and Jacob have the raw courage to make that journey? How did it feel to walk the streets of New York knowing no English, having only a few scattered relatives to whom they could turn? What was it like to adopt a new culture, a new language, a whole new life?

Those are the questions that adult children tend to ask later in their own lives, when perspective comes galloping in.

So yes, the ship's manifest is now among our most cherished possessions this Hanukkah. As we light the menorah and sing the familiar songs of the holiday, and dig into the potato latkes, we'll still pause to remember not just our heritage as Jews, but also our heritage as a family.

That manifest is our proof that we, too, are in that vast army of Americans who are inextricably linked to immigrant ancestors. Their dreams mingle with ours, generations later. Their blood courses through us.

And no entry on a ship's manifest can begin to tell that story.